An Interview with British Land Art Artist Chris Drury
Pu: could you say something about how Land Art has evolved and changed in the last 40 years? In the era of globalization, is
there a new face to Land Art which is different from the 1960s’?
Chris: I think land Art has evolved and changed a great deal and most artists I know who have been given this label, do not like
it because it does not adequately describe what they do. Narrowly defined as an art made in the landscape, with the landscape
as part of the work and the work as part of the landscape, then such an art, no longer exists because it has broken out of those
parameters. What it isn’t, is works made elsewhere in a studio and placed in a landscape setting, as in a lot of sculpture parks.
You could say that it has become: Art in Nature, Art and Nature, Art and the Natural Environment, Body and landscape, Private
rituals in the landscape, cosmic cycles, Eco Art and there is an element of Land Art in Art and Science. Some artists, particularly
in America are focusing on ruined landscapes – industrial wastelands and the spread of the suburbs. Some have become community based and activist, where vegetable gardens are being created on the sterile front yards of suburban wastelands
transforming communities as well as landscape. In Europe Joseph Beuys politicized an art connected to nature ( he co founded
the Green Party – an anti political party) and this has now been taken forward by artists making work about Climate Change,
which is activist as well as aesthetic.
In Britain there is an organization called Cape Farewell which takes art, science and education practitioners to the Arctic and to
melting glaciers around the world, to give them first hand experience of the phenomenon. This has resulted in artists such as
Rachel Whiteread filling the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern with thousands of white plastic boxes, or Alex Hartley, making
political claim to a small island emerging from the ice in the Arctic, a comment perhaps on the Russians laying claim to the sea
bed beneath the North Pole.
So Land Art now has a very wide sphere of reference. I myself went to Antarctica with The British Antarctic Survey as one of two
artists working alongside a scientific organization which is focusing on the effects of Climate Change. I experienced wonder, but
tinged with incomprehension, confusion, regret and anger. In the face of this to simply make a sculpture or painting in that place
would be wholly to ignore the reality and this attitude must exemplify how things have changed.
Pu: Through creativity and hard work, Land Artists of Britain have earned their worldwide reputation. Do you think there is any
national and cultural identity which separates British’s Land Art from that of other countries, such as the Americans Robert
Smithson and Walter De Maria? Is there something uniquely British about it? Insert images from Long, Fulton, Nash,
Chris: Richard Long, whatever he might say, was very influenced by the Americans in the 60’s when he was at college – mostly
because they pioneered the idea of using the wild outside spaces of the world as a form of canvas for their work. Linked with
the conceptual movement, he and Hamish Fulton developed a language about walking. Fulton was actually very interested in
the conceptual language of the musician John Cage and their heroes were the British and European Climbers and Explorers of
the early 20th Century. The Himalayan climber/explorer Eric Shipton once said that if you couldn’t organize an expedition on the
back of an envelope, then it was too complicated. Fulton’s statement: ‘Take only photographs, leave only footprints’ is a similar
statement of intent. Last year at the age of 63 Fulton climbed Mount Everest. In 1975 I went with him to the Canadian Rockies
to walk for two weeks in the first snows of October and this one experience changed the direction of my Art. I understand
his attitude of not touching, but I would argue however that because we are nature, we are always going to touch and alter it,
it is a question of how much and why. Both Long and Fulton are very critical of the heavy hand of American Land Art, and hold
a strong, almost Buddhist idea of not altering the landscape in any major way. Move some stones, scrape a line with your foot,
take a photo, make an entry in the notebook and walk on.
Although David Nash’s art is based around the philosophies of the German philosopher Rudolf Steiner his work is very English,
as it focuses on the tree and plant growth, and although most of his work is carved outside using a chain saw directly into fallen
trees, it is mostly then shown inside, but that is no different to Long and Fulton who exhibit documentation of actions and walks
made outside, inside the gallery.
The attitude of a light touch was taken further in the 80’s by Andy Goldsworthy, who some criticize as being purely decorative.
Such is the hegemony of Conceptual Art in Britain that to my knowledge the Tate Gallery do not own a work by Goldsworthy.
British Land Art may have a lightness of touch and a Zen simplicity and from the outside may look like a national attitude, but
in reality is full of divisions and disagreements, which is how it should be. Today things are moving on and what is happening is
more in line with global movements advocating environmental change.
Pu: Your work seems different to other Land artists, because of your enthusiastic link to Science. This is especially evident in
your project in Antarctica, I can see science elements everywhere. And once you said the “theory of everything” has a bearing
on your works. Some critics even said you are more of a scientist than an artist. How does science influence your conception of
Explorers at the Edge of the Void - Antarctica 2008
Chris: In many ways I am an outsider, I have few works in museums and galleries around the world and I am not represented by
cutting-edge galleries. This has been a source of extreme frustration, because it makes surviving financially very difficult, but
strangely it has put me in a position of great strength, because I can operate at the borders of many disciplines, and so can make
unique connections in the world.
The Art world and the Art market is very narrow in its terms of reference, it is rife with positioning and infighting and tends to be
self referential. It rarely bursts out of its own bubble. It reminds me of the heating system of a car in cold weather, switched to
internal recycled air. The car gets nice and warm but all the windows mist up so you can’t see out. That’s the Art world. I prefer
to let the air come in from outside, so I can see the world clearly as it is, or better still, get out of the car altogether.
This attitude, together with the circumstances of my life, means that I must go with whatever is coming towards me. It is in effect
a Taoist attitude and it means that I am interested in all ways of looking at our connections to nature and poses the question:
How can we live sustainably in the 21st Century? It means that I have collaborated with people from many areas of expertise.
Science is one of them and an important one, but I have also worked with small, often marginalised rural communities, farmers, doctors, clinicians, architects, town planners and local authorities, also technicians of many varieties including dry stone wallers, wood craftsmen, basket makers, radiographers, film editors and digital wizards. All of these people see the world in different ways and add to the complexity of how we see nature and how we live on the Earth.
The world of science is much like the world of art – often narrow and compartmentalised. Of course there are people from both
fields who make breakthroughs and see the bigger picture. Science is so complex that most scientists only have time to read
about their own field and often fail to see the whole. As someone who acts on the edge, I am in the unique position to make
connections, which is what my so called Land Art has evolved into doing.
Pu: how do you understand Nature?
Chris: Nature simply is. Nature is also a word, which is language and language is culture. Culture is our conditioning as an individual, through to a society. In the 21st century culture is global. Culture is the veil through which we see nature, so we rarely
see it as it is – we see it through the veil of our conditioning. From the first early farmers we have tried to control nature and right now that is causing immense problems because we are changing the climate of the earth and heading towards the 6th mass extinction of most of the biosphere. Sixty five Million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period, 95% of the biosphere became extinct. We have evolved from the 5% which survived and are in danger of becoming a part of that 95% which will disappear again. Understanding our disconnection to nature, may yet save us.
Pu: in your philosophy on Art, you talk most about the idea of “macrocosm and microcosm”, can you expand on this more for
Chris: Like I said, we set up divisions. Nature is not something ‘out there’. We are nature. We are made from the dust of stars,
millions of years old. The energy and laws which underlies the creation of the universe, also created us. The underlying energy
driving the universe, creates the same patterns of flow in our bodies as it does in weather systems, so everything is linked by
this creative force.
Pu: To continue, it seems that in your art you often draw attention to the similarities between two different things. For example,
mushrooms and atomic explosions, the radial form of Destroying Angel Trinity to the shape of a Mandala; this is like a
mysterious metaphor between different worlds. Is the similarity just the bridge connecting macrocosm and microcosm?
Destroying Angel Trinity and Destroying Angel - 2008
Chris: Similarities and comparisons certainly form a bridge, but perhaps to more than just microcosm and macrocosm. The
bridge opens up further possibilities. For instance in Nevada I asked a plant ecologist, working on the desert of the Nevada
Test Site (NTS), what was growing in the soils of the area where from 1951 to 1963, 14 atmospheric tests were carried out. Her
answer was to produce two images: one a magnified image of a soil sino-bacteria, and the other an image of that area of the Test Site,(Frenchman’s Flat) taken from space. The dried out river wash of Frenchman’s Flat was remarkably similar in pattern to the
string of fibres in the sino-bacteria. These two images became the first work – Life in the Presence of Death 1. I then took this
idea for a walk, looked up the gene sequence for the plant – at that time only partially decoded at 559, and stencilled this
sequence in groups of 100, onto a 18 m. long wall like rows of grave stones, in soil collected from the NTS.
We then collected 559 stones from the desert and constructed a very primitive and fragile stone fallout shelter, with a floor plan
like a splattered explosion. So here there are multiple layers that bring in all sorts of associations. In the final show at the
museum, each work was bridged to the next in a train of thought.
Life in the Field of Death 1 & 11
559 Shelter Stones - 2008
Before I can make a work, I need to make a connection and this is intuitive. I am drawn to something for no particular reason
other than that I feel an excitement in the pit of my stomach. This may be a reaction to a particular place, landscape or
experience, or it may arise from a conversation or something I have read. In this case language is a guide to memory of the
actual physical world.
I feel my way towards finding the best way to explore it and look for a visual form. Usually each new work has to start from
zero and it may mean that I end up using a process, medium or material for which I have no prior experience, so I look for
experts to help me. My work therefore has no particular style or medium. Its cohesion rests in the connections it makes.
To finally make a work, everything has to be in balance – idea, process, material and form. Because of this, in any one work
there are many layers and I may not be consciously aware of them all. Microcosm/macrocosm may well be in there. For the
viewer, however there is work for the eye and mind to do to extend those connections and find meaning within the context of
their own lives and experience.
In a work outside, this process is condensed into the one piece and because it is a tangible thing – often architectural, like one
of the Cloud Chambers, which have an inside as well as an outside, there is an outer form and an inside experience which has
an almost bodily way of communicating – beyond language.
Willow Domes on The Este - Hamburg 2003
Star Chamber 2006 - inside and out
Pu: Besides exploring a philosophy, your works are also involved in many social problems, such as in the project Mushroom/
Clouds, where there is reference to nuclear issues, but you know, “reflecting the world” and “changing the world” through art
are not the same thing. May be we cannot change anything through art. So, besides their great visual strength, what more can
we discover from your Art?
Chris: Yes, I agree that Art is not really going to change anything and it does reflect society as it is at that particular moment in
time. Mostly change happens very slowly, so slowly we don’t notice it, but the world is a very different place now to what it was
when I was a teenager. Sometimes an idea reaches a critical mass and then change happens fast as in a political revolution. The
idea of Climate Change, which has been around since the second world war, has now reached a critical mass and politicians are
having to take action.
As humans though, we don’t seem to have changed at all. We are still as much driven by greed, anger and violence, as we were
thousands of years ago. Greed will in the end destroy us. An art connected to nature can be a superficial thing – a love of
mountains, fresh air, fitness etc is a romantic notion – Hitler’s Youth movement extolled all this and look where that led. If we
want to move from what you call Land Art, the connections will have to go deeper than mere scratches on the surface. Of course Land Art can become political and subversive, as it has, but art is a visual, non-verbal language, and any work which is in tune and in balance communicates a kind of harmony without trying to ‘say’ something.
Pu: Concerning Nature and Humanity, you have said, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is not an egocentric imposition on a landscape. But in fact, is a masterpiece of human civilization. It has had a great impact on the surrounding environment; Its iconic
nature is a reflection of the focus of human attention over the years. In such a context, is there any difference between Spiral Jetty and your works which use similar spiral patterns, such as Ice Print?
Heart of Reeds - 2005
Chris: There is a great deal of hype about Smithson breaking away from the city/gallery based art markets and using the landscapes of the South West as the place of his art – negating the market. This is not really true; Spiral Jetty with its purchase of
land, construction and documentation was all financed by the art market and was sold and broadcast by that market. Much of
his other work – the site and non-site work was also gallery based. Spiral Jetty, however is iconic because it has a life beyond
the market. It exists as a reality in the land. It changes and reacts with the landscape in which it sits very beautifully. Its shape is
archaic. It changes colour in reaction to the salts of the lake and it appears and disappears as the water levels change. For this it
is truly extraordinary.
Despite the archaic native form of the spiral, in the final sequence of the film of its making, there are elements of transcendence
and redemptive Catholicism in the blinding rays of the sun and kaleidoscopic colours surrounding the lone figure of the artist within the work itself. Catholicism was the religion he was brought up in and something that interested him a great deal in earlier works. This in itself would set him apart from my own and other British Land Artists, although in the project Mushrooms|Clouds I am talking about the cycle of life, death and transformation and there may well be cross-over’s there. Smithson did however genuinely try to place his art in other contexts. He tried to interest strip-mining companies in working with him, but he was way ahead of his time and they all turned him down. In he end he was killed in a helicopter accident while researching a work for a site in Texas. It took artists like Herman Prigann in Germany in the 1990’s to finally get strip coal mining companies to see the worth of working with Land artists to find creative solutions to clean up these devastated landscapes. For myself, having been ostracised by the Art Market I found that other organisations: scientists, architects, clinicians, environmentalists etc came towards me with proposals.
Like most of my British contemporaries however, my work is small scale, hand made and often ephemeral. When I was in
Antarctica I wanted to observe and experience, rather than make. The few works I did make on the ground used ice and snow
and disappeared in a few hours. Iceprint was a human fingerprint brushed onto a fresh fall of snow on blue ice with a dustpan
and brush – the documentation of it highlighting our inappropriate presence in such a place – do not touch!
The only work of mine which approaches the scale and shape of Spiral Jetty and was also constructed using heavy machinery
is Heart Of Reeds in my home town of Lewes. This work however, lives, grows and changes, providing habitat for other species.
The shape uses a complex chaos pattern from blood flow in the heart to create the conditions to maximise the biodiversity of
a small local nature reserve on a piece of land once used as an industrial railway siding on the edge of town. A work made for
small creatures as well as people. You can get up close and see the microcosm, or climb a nearby hill and see it from above and
at a distance.
In creating the conditions for plant and animal life, these living systems become a part of the work. Unlike Spiral Jetty which is in
a sterile saline environment, Heart of Reeds is a living system, in which people have to play a part. The work therefore is managed, not as an artwork, but so that it continues to provide maximum habitat for biodiversity. I explained this work to one of the Paiute tribe I worked with in Nevada, and he was intrigued, because of course a concern for all of life is at the centre of their belief system. This is something which was never a part of the thinking of Heizer or de Maria, but if Smithson had lived I have a hunch that is where he would be at now, Nancy Holt has gone on to make ecological works.
Pu: I really appreciate your art project “the heartbeat of the Earth” in Antarctica. There is a nervous tension when you use radar,
a human technology, to represent the natural world. How does this fit within the wider context of your art-making experience?
Chris: the work I made with scientists in Antarctica was in fact an extension of the work I have made in connection to blood
flow patterns in the heart, which came about through collaborations with clinicians in hospitals. Antarctica was in many ways
a difficult social experience – two artists amongst many scientists and technicians, many of whom thought that we were taking
up valuable science resources. We were advised therefore, to connect with people by giving talks about what we do. I gave two
slide presentations and as a result of this was approached by a scientist who was anxious to show me the parallels in what he
was doing and introduced me to the images of the echograms they were working on.
Later I spent time with him deep in the interior, living in tents on the ice. In a conversation we had he made the statement “Our
echograms are like the heartbeat of the Earth”. A great statement and he was right – an echogram is very similar to an
echocardiogram of the heart. One is produced by radar fixed to the wings of airplanes, and the other by ultrasound through the
body; both show flow patterns. A surgeon can read the medical life history of the patient in an echocardiogram, just as a
scientist can read the history of the Biosphere in the echograms of the ice.
One of the works in this series was called Double Echo. I superimposed the echocardiogram taken from the heartbeat of the
pilot who flew these echogram flights, onto a fragment of one of his echograms. So the whole project was a continuation and
deepening of my research into universal patterns of flow, the underlying energy of the universe made visible.
Pu: The last hypothetical question: supposing I have a ticket for you to attend Shanghai Expo in 2010. You will create an artwork
for this city, which is different from the desert in Nevada and the glaciers of Antarctica. In Shanghai, there is a multi-perspective
on culture. What should you do to have a dialogue with this charming city and not lose your sense of the natural environment?
Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes - 2008
Chris: This is your hardest question yet, because in order to make something I need a context and I have never been to Shanghai.
If the brief is to come for a short time, make a temporary work and leave, and if the space is a white wall in a building, then
I would use a universal symbol and make it particular to place by the use of a local material or pigment. Or if there was a space
outside, I might use a vortex pattern, which spirals downs into the earth, maybe using bamboo or recycled timber from industrial pallets, laid on edge and charred black as they move into the centre.
The thing about cities, however is that they are complex places. Most modern cities look superficially the same – high-rise
buildings, transport flow systems etc. However all will have layers of history within them. That history will have been built from
culture and language, but still be deeply connected to its particular place in the land. Its customs, language and food will have
been shaped by this land.
What would really interest me would be a longer term project which peeled back some of these layers. Perhaps it could be a
collaboration between myself, a neurosurgeon, a botanist and an engineer, which could be open ended in terms of an eventual
work, but which might be a garden or small park which reflected our findings. Send me that ticket any time.
Carbon Sink drawing.